Chris's Reviews > Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg
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's review
Jan 31, 2015

it was ok
Read in May, 2012 — I own a copy

I really wanted to like this book. The first bit, comparing the dinki-di fascists of Europe with the stated aims and documented actions of Woodrow Wilson and the early 20th century Progressives that shared his ideology, makes a good case. There are some excellent quotes of mutual admiration back and forth across the Atlantic, and Goldberg lifts the rock on a nasty squirming mass of human rights infringments and creepy propaganda from Wilson's war administration.

The section dealing with FDR is less convincing - Goldberg has a bad tendency to pile on brief quotes out of context that reminded me uncomfortably of Evangelical 'Bible Study' programs I was exposed to in high school. For example, this quote of JBS Haldane's is introduced into a discussion of the Progressive attitude to eugenics: "The dogma of human equality is no part of Communism ... the formula of Communism 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs' would be nonsense if abilities are equal." Only someone steeped in the race-obsessed society of the rebel North American colonies would leap to the conclusion that this quote has anything to do with eugenics at all.

Somewhere in his discussion of LBJ's Great Society Goldberg jumps the shark. The brush of 'liberal fascism' is applied more and more broadly until it nearly mirrors the use of 'fascism' by the Left to mean 'anything I don't like'. This section reminded me the treatment of the same period in Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" - which is not a good thing. The problem is that *some* of the aspects of fascism so clearly shared by Wilson and Roosevelt with Mussolini are also shared by the postwar progressive enterprise; some are not. The missing aspects are illustrated with reference to groups that thought LBJ was the devil incarnate. It doesn't make sense. It is like saying you have seen a tiger when you have really seen a tabby cat *and* a zebra.

A problem I had at the end was that Goldberg does not seem to recognise anything as 'conservative' except a narrow 'classical liberalism' which does not have any characteristics distinguishing it from libertarianism. Not that I could see, anyhow. The idea of a social conservativism that might validly be interested in using the power of the state to provide a minimal level of support for the disadvantaged and enforce traditional social norms, in the absence of an established Church and class structure to do those things, is to him a chimera; it is 'statolatry' and just another manifestation of fascism.

This blind spot might not be his fault. He comes from a country where conservatives were expelled or driven underground in a utopian revolution (to such an extent that William Marina, writing in 1975, can say that it is a "widespread, persistent, and dangerous myth" that they ever comprised a significant part of the population!) leaving libertarians and progressive idealists holding the fort. Goldberg briefly draws a distinction between a 'good, conservative' American revolution and a 'bad, radical' French revolution, but this is untenable. If you violently sever your connections with a country that is universally considered to be the most free, the most classically liberal, currently in existence, in order to make a polity that is more free and classically liberal, is that conservative? Is it not instead utopian, an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good? If, instead of forming the political institutions of your new polity on incremental modifications in the directions of freedom and classical liberalism of the existing ones, you create de novo an experimental system modelled most closely on republican Rome, is that conservative? Is it not instead wildly radical and utopian? The American revolution let the genie out of the bottle and began all this trouble. IMHO.

I found the wit and sparkle of Goldberg's briefer works in National Review almost wholly absent from this book. Which was a great pity.

Finally, Goldberg doesn't like "Dead Poets Society". This tragic discovery will haunt my dreams forever. :(
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